Joe Nathan is one of baseball’s more underrated relievers of the century, despite being a dominant reliever most of his career. This is year one for him on the Hall of Fame ballot. Through a little over 135 ballots known, he still needs 16 more votes to stay on for a second season.
After two seasons as a primary starter, Joe Nathan converted to the bullpen full-time, where he remained for the rest of his career. In 13 seasons (missed 2010), Nathan pitched to a 2.41 ERA, a 2.76 FIP, a 2.67 SIERA, a 29.2 strikeout rate and saved 376 games. With the anti-reliever bias––only six relievers with more than 800 innings have been inducted––are Nathan’s numbers in 761 total relief innings enough? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of his resume.
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Nathan is seventh all-time in saves despite being 38th among primary relievers in appearances. On top of that, he’s 14th in ERA+.
Nathan also made six All-Star teams, won a Reliever of the Year award, and posted nine seasons of at least a 25.0 strikeout rate. In those nine seasons, eight of them also featured a walk rate below 10.0 (four below 8.0). Lastly, he’s the Twins leader in saves (260), eighth in FIP (minimum of 250 innings), and first in strikeout rate (30.7).
Nathan’s case is similar to Jonathan Papelbon’s. When looking at their careers as relievers side-by-side, they’re practically identical.
Nathan made 748 relief appearances after converting to the bullpen full-time. In those appearances, he had a 2.41 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 3.22 xFIP, a .250 opponent’s wOBA, and a strikeout-to-walk rate of 21.2. On top of that, he had 377 total saves in his career (seventh all-time).
As for Papelbon, he made 686 career relief appearances, posting a 2.45 ERA, a 2.76 FIP, a 3.24 xFIP, a .260 opponent’s wOBA, and a strikeout-to-walk rate of 21.6. He also finished with 368 career saves (ninth all-time).
On top of that, Nathan’s postseason resume consists of 10 innings, where his overall numbers were pedestrian. Papelbon’s only consisted of 27 innings, but he had a 1.00 ERA, seven saves, and won a World Series in 2007––something Nathan never won.
If one was to vote for Nathan, they’d likely also need to vote for Papelbon. Given the anti-reliever bias that’s keeping Billy Wagner (better career than both) out, it’s hard to justify voting for either without checking Wagner.
Not just Wagner, but John Franco and Francisco Rodriguez have more saves than Nathan did in their career. Franco’s time on the ballot already came and went without induction, with Rodriguez set to join the ballot next year. One has to wonder if 420 saves, which Wagner, Franco, and Rodriguez each have, isn’t a Hall of Fame guarantee, it’s tough to justify 377 saves.
Joe Nathan had a Hall of Very Good career, based on past voting habits. Despite posting impressive numbers being top 10 in saves, there are better relievers not in the Hall of Fame. There’s no harm in voting for him if you’re not an anti-reliever voter. He has a strong case for Cooperstown. However, it’s a tough sell to vote for him if Billy Wagner and John Franco aren’t in the Hall of Fame either.
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